YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

A kind word for our words : THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE by Robert Burchfield (Oxford: $19.95; 192 pp.)

March 17, 1985|Fred S. Holley | Reviewed by Fred S. Holley

We live, read and write in "an age in which the printed word on paper is threatened by the summoning of dismembered segments of printed texts onto screens," the reader is informed by Robert Burchfield, chief editor of the Oxford English dictionaries and author of a BBC guide to the use of the spoken word.

But this is no valedictory for the language that once was "spoken by (only) a few thousand people, most of them illiterate."

". . . A great many people seem to believe that the English language is entering a period of decline. . . . To me, it is axiomatic that the language, far from bleeding to death from past cruelties and past wounds, . . . can be used (at the present time as in the past) with majesty and power, free of all fault, by our greatest writers."

In an anecdotal and thoroughly delightful way, Burchfield traces the language through the Scandinavian, the Latin and the Old French influences to the 18th Century when "almost everyone had absolutist views of linguistic correctness" and yet "no one saw American English as posing any more than a minor and containable threat to the English of the British Isles."

Today, he says, "a chasm has opened between prescriptive and descriptive grammarians. The battle between linguistic conservatives and linguistic radicals continues unabated." And, while I suppose Burchfield would have to be considered a linguistic radical or a neutral, he lays about him with a mighty bludgeon of scholarship and with a fine disregard of which persuasion gets a lambasting.

Referring to "the prevalence of incorrect uses of the apostrophe," he predicts that "the time is at hand when this moderately useful device will be abandoned."

And "the use of the . . . subjunctive in that- clauses occurs chiefly in formal style (and in American English), but is avoided by most writers and speakers. . . . The subjunctive has retreated to a point of virtual extinction."

He sets up three classes of debatable features of grammar: (1) those "unacceptable in any circumstances," such as the dangling participle; (2) those resisted but permissible in informal English, such as the use of like as a conjunction, and (3) those whose use by educated people varies widely, such as who-whom .

"There is little doubt that most of these new features that are intensely disliked by linguistic conservatives will triumph in the end. But the language will not bleed to death. Nor will it seem in any way distorted once the old observances have been forgotten."

Burchfield is no iconoclast. He pays tribute to the coinages of Dylan Thomas, Vladimir Nabokov, James Joyce, Ezra Pound and Gerard Manley Hopkins (names that sound like a roll call of the great!). He has harsh words for contemporary versions of the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer): "The transfiguration," he says, "is unforgivable." And he has no great admiration, and perhaps an intense suspicion, of "the complicated new rules" of Noam Chomsky's "transformational-generative grammar."

I warmed to his description of Black English: "It constitutes a stridently alternative form of American speech, biding its time, a language that is richly imagistic, inventive and combative." And I was delighted with this definition of California from Edward Phillips' "New World of English Words" (1678): "a very large part of Northern America, uncertain whether Continent or Island."

Holley, a Times copy editor, is the compiler of the Los Angeles Times Stylebook (New American Library).

Los Angeles Times Articles